by Stan Stefaniak FASMA, President, The Australian Society of Marine Artists
Oswald (Os) Longfield Brett, 1921–2017
Born 3 April 1921 in Cheltenham, New South Wales, Oswald Longfield Brett spent much time sketching ships in Sydney Harbour and imagining the day when he could go to sea. He also drew inspiration for painting from his mother Estelle Brett (née Mutton), a talented amateur portrait and landscape artist. Both Estelle and Oswald’s sister Judith encouraged him with his painting even later in his life. Os, as he was affectionately called by his friends, knew at an early age that he would be a professional artist concentrating entirely on ships and the sea.
As a teenager Os was greatly inspired by the work of masterful Sydney marine artist John Allcot FRAS (1888–1973) who became his mentor and lifelong friend. Os’ great interest in marine painting and determination to become a professional artist were already firmly established.
The dream to go to sea became a reality for Os just before the outbreak of World War II, serving on coastal steamers around Australia. He spent the war years aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth mostly between New York and Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Many opportunities arose for Os to sketch on board scenes whilst off duty. The book Queen Elizabeth at War by Chris Konings (1985, Patrick Stephens Ltd.) showcases his fine drawing skills and observation of detail.
Late in the war Os met his future wife Gertrude Steacy (now deceased). They married in 1944, settling in suburban New York and having two children, Walter and Elizabeth. During the decade following the war Brett perfected his skill as an artist. His paintings became more alive and his sea and sky moved. Famous British marine artist John Stobart wrote of Os Brett’s firsthand knowledge of ships and the sea.
The result is that Os has developed a wonderful facility for accurately portraying sea states and in placing his ships in those seas with such realism that they always look as if they’re ready to sail right off the canvas. Oswald Brett is one of the finest marine artists of the 20th century. His historic ship portraits are always meticulously researched and technically accurate to the enth degree, but they also capture another quality that speaks of the painter’s long and often arduous experience at sea.
Os made a professional living out of private and corporate commissions. From 1971 to 2002 he enjoyed travelling throughout the world as Ship’s Artist aboard Columbus Line vessels making twenty voyages, each of about 12,000 nautical miles. Gertrude, his wife, often flew to the port of destination to join him on the return voyage. It was his first such voyage that took Os home to Australia for the first time in twenty five years. Although Os only staged one major Australian exhibition—in the new headquarters of the Bank of New South Wales in 1976—his paintings are held by the Australian War Memorial, the US Naval Academy, the White House, Washington DC, and by maritime museums in Australia and overseas.
Always vitally interested in ships and the sea and their history, Os helped in the public campaign in Australia to restore the tall ships Polly Woodside in Melbourne and James Craig in Sydney, and to build the Endeavour replica. Being one of the Australian Society of Marine Artists founding members Os maintained friendships with its member artists. Each visit to Australia provided an opportunity to catch up and talk about marine painting. As recently as November 2014 Os made his last journey here to launch his wonderful book Ships and the Sea – The Art and Life of Oswald Brett (Halstead Press, Sydney).
It is most fortunate that such a publication eventuated since it offers current and future generations an insight into the highly skilled artwork of a true master of painting. The book also explains the passion and dedication that characterised Os who lived in the so called “Golden Era” of sea travel. It is all too easy these days to take for granted the sea trade which was instrumental in the economic development of Australia, that included sail transport right up until the end of World War II.
Those who knew Os fondly remember him as very personable and always willing to talk about art. These were conversations that provided inspiration and a sense of purpose for their own artwork. His contribution to the celebration of Australia’s maritime heritage in particular, through art, is most significant.
Os Brett died on 6 August 2017 following complications after a fall in his home on Long Island. He was 96. He is survived by his son Walter and daughter Elizabeth in New York, as well as by a nephew, Oswald Frizell, in Australia and a grandson, Samuel, in Buffalo, New York state.